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Howard F. Stein 

Wynne, Lyman, Irving M. WyckofT, Juliana Day, and Stanley I. Hirsch. 
1967. Pseudo-mutuality in the Family Relations of Schizophrenics, The 
Psychosocial Interior of the Family (G. Handel, ed.). Aldine. 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye: An Essay in 
Indo-European and Semitic Worldview 

Alan Dundes* 

If one bothers to read extensively in the scholarship devoted to a 
given issue, one may well become discouraged both by the amount of 
material to be digested and by the sobering thought that probably 
everything worth saying about the subject has already been said by 
someone else. Perhaps this is one reason why relatively few students 
of the evil eye took the trouble to locate and examine much of the 
previous scholarship. On the other hand, it is surely an exciting 
challenge to try to say something new and worthwhile about a well 
studied topic. Having taken the trouble to review the earlier 
scholarship (and to present in this volume what I consider to be some 
of the highlights of this literature), I should like to present my own 
analysis of the evil eye. I have, I hope, profited from the insights 
offered by other students of the subject. 

The reader is cautioned against thinking that this is the final 
word to be written on the subject. It is only the final word in this 
volume. If the reader has learned nothing else, he or she should 
realize that scholarship is a cooperative chain extending through 
time with each individual scholar forging no more than one link in 
that chain. Future investigators of the evil eye may choose to use this 
essay or more likely this volume in general as a stepping stone to 

I should like to dedicate this essay to the memory of Ernest Jones whose brilliant 
application of pschoanalytic theory to the materials of folklore has served as a 
continual inspiration to me over the years. I must also thank Stanley Brandes, Robert 
Coote, Osama Doumani, George Foster, Steve Gudeman, Barbara Kirshenblatt- 
Gimblett, Wendy O’Flaherty, Felix Oinas, Saad Sowayan, and Tim White for 
valuable references and suggestions. 

* Reprinted by permission of the English Folklore Society. 




Alan Dundes 

construct more rigorous and more accurate analyses of the various 
facets of the evil eye belief complex. 

The evil eye is a fairly consistent and uniform folk belief complex 
based upon the idea that an individual, male or female, has the power, 
voluntarily or involuntarily, to cause harm to another individual or his 
property merely by looking at or praising that person or property. The 
harm may consist of illness, or even death or destruction. Typically, 
the victim’s good fortune, good health, or good looks — or unguarded 
comments about them — invite or provoke an attack by someone with 
the evil eye. If the object attacked is animate, it may fall ill. Inanimate 
objects such as buildings or rocks may crack or burst. Symptoms of 
illness caused by the evil eye include loss of appetite, excessive 
yawning, hiccoughs, vomiting, and fever. If the object attacked is a 
cow, its milk may dry up; if a plant or a fruit tree, it may suddenly 
wither and die. 

""Preventive measures include wearing apotropaic amulets, making 
specific hand gestures or spitting, and uttering protective verbal 
formulas before of after praising or complimenting a person, espe- 
cially an infant. Another technique is concealing, disguising, or even 
denyin g good fortune. One may symbolically disfigure good looks, for 
instance, by purposely staining the white linen of a new dress or 
placing a black smudge of soot behind a child’s ear (Rodd 1 968: 1 60- 
61, cf. Crooke 1968:2:6), so as not to risk attracting the attention of 
the evil eye. This may be the rationale behind behavior as disparate as 
the veiling common in Arab cultures, the refusal in Jewish culture to 
say “good” when asked how one’s health or business is — the safe 
reply is“notbad” or“no complaints” — the common tendency among 
millionaires in Europe and America to insist upon dressing in rags, 
and the baseball custom in the United States of not mentioning that a 
pitcher has given up no hits. (The mere mention of a possible “no- 
hitter” would supposedly jinx the pitcher and result in a batter’s 
getting a base hit of some kind.) 

In the event of a successful attack by the evil eye, there are 
prescribed diagnostic and curative procedures available. One may 
first need to ascertain whether or not it is a true case of the evil eye and 
second, if it is, who is responsible for it. Sometimes, the agent, who 
was perhaps an unwitting one, is involved in the ritual removal of the 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 

evil eye and its ill effects from the victim. He may, for instance, be 
asked to spit on the victim’s face (cf. Dodwell 1819:35-36). 

Although w idespread throughout the Indo -European and Semitic 
world, the evil eye belief complex is not universal. In the most recent 
"cross-cultural survey Roberts found that only 36 percent of the 186 
cultures in his world sample possessed the evil eye belief ( 1 976:229); 
and he suggested that the belief “probably developed in the ol d worl d, 
pa rtic ularly in India, the Near East , and Euro pe” (1976:234). From 
this and other surveys (e.g., Andree, Seligmann), it is clear that the 
evil eye appears to be largely absent in aboriginal Australia, Oceania, 
native North and South America, and sub-Saharan A fric a. The few 
rare reports of its occurrence in Africa, apart from the Maghreb where 
it flourishes, suggest Islamic influence. In Latin America, the evil eye 
was surely part of the general Spanish and Portuguese cultural legacy. 
Yet within the Indo-European and Semitic world, it is difficult to think 
of a more pervasive and powerful folk belief than the evil eye. 

The scholarship devoted to the evil eye goes back to classical 
antiquity. Many of the ancients referred to it and P luta rch (46-120 
A.D.) featured it in one of the dialogues in his Table Talk (V, 
Questioh'7J rr Dn those who are said to cast an evil eye.” This dialogue 
begins as follows: “Once at dinner a discussion arose about people 
who are said to cast a spell and to have an evil eye. While everybody 
else pronounced the matter completely silly and scoffed at it, Mestrius 
Florus, our host, declared that actual facts lend astonishing support to 
the common belief.” Sometimes the passing references indicated 
belief in the evil eye, sometimes disbelief. In his insightful homily 
“Concerning Envy,” written in the fourth century, Saint Basil 
remarked 44 . . . some think that envious persons bring bad luck merely 
by a glance, so that healthy persons in the full flower and vigor of their 
prime are made to pine away under their spell, suddenly losing all 
their plumpness, which dwindles and wastes away under the gaze of 
the envious, as if washed away by a destructive flood. For my part, I 
reject these tales as popular fancies and old wives’ gossip” (Saint 
Basil 1950:469-70). 

One of the issues often discussed was whether the evil eye was a 
conscious or unconscious power. The famed Arab historian Ibn 
Khaldun (1332-1466) tended to consider the power of the evil eye 
as deriving from an involuntary act and, for this reason, to be distin- 
guished from intentionally malicious sorcery. In section 27 of chapter 



Alan Dundes 

6 of the Muqaddimah (1967:170-71), Ibn Khaldun commented on 
the evil eye, calling it a natural gift, something that isJmjriatejyid not 
acquired, not depending upon the free choice of its possessor. He 
ended his discussion as follows: “Therefore it has been said: ‘A 
person who kills by means of sorcery or a miraculous act must be 
killed, but the person who kills with the eyes must not be killed.’ The 
only reason for the distinction is that the person who kills with the eyes 
did not want or intend to do so, nor could he have avoided doing so. 
The application of the eye was involuntary on his part.” Ibn 
Khaldun’s distinction, somewhat analogous to the modern differ- 
ences between first and second degree manslaughter, is not held by all 
writers on the evil eye. Some (e.g., Mackenzie 1895; Cutileiro 
1971:274) suggest that some cases of the evil eye reflect an evil 
disposition on the part of the person possessing the power while others 
believed to have the power are “innocent of any ill design.” 

During the Renaissance a number of treatises were devoted to the 
evil eye. Representative are Enrique de Villena’s “Tradado del 
Aojamiento” of 1422, Leonardus Vairus’s “De Fascino” of 1589, 
Martinus Antonius Del Rio’s “Disquisitionum magicarum” of 1 599— 
1600, Joannes Lazarus Gutierrez’s “Opusculum de Fascino” of 
1653, and Joannes Christianus Frommann’s “Tractatus de Fasci- 
natione” of 1675. These and subsequent surveys often contain 
valuable data. For example, Nicola Valletta in his Cicalata sul 
fascino volgarmente detto jettatura of 1 7 87 ended his discussion with 
a series of thirteen queries, designed very much like the modem 
questionnaire, about the evil eye and the jettatura, the casting of the 
evil eye. Valletta’s queries were: 1) Is the evil eye stronger from a man 
or from a woman? 2) Is it stronger from someone wearing a wig? 3) 
Stronger from someone who wears glasses? 4) Stronger from a 
pregnant woman? 5) Stronger from monks and, if so, from which 
order? 6) If the evil eye does approach, after the attack, what effects 
must be suffered? 7) What is the range or limit of the distance at which 
the jettatura can be effective? 8) Can the power come from inanimate 
objects? 9) Is the evil eye stronger from the side, from the front, or 
from behind? 10) Are there gestures, voice quality, eyes, and facial 
characteristics by which jettatura can be recognized? 11) What 
prayers ought to be recited to protect us against the jettatura of monks? 
12) What words in general ought to be said to thwart or escape the 
jettatura? 13) ^hat power then have the horiis and other things? 
(Valletta 1787: 15^.WalleTta~tfien asked anyone who had had experi- 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 

ence with the evil eye to get in touch with him and added that he would 
be happy to pay for any information furnished. 

The steady flow of treatises continued in the nineteenth century. 
Italian scholars in particular were intrigued with a phenomenon that 
flourished unabated in their country. Typical are Giovanni Leonardo 
Marugj’s Capricci sulla jettatura in 1815, and Michele Arditi’s// 
fascino, e Vamuleto contro del fascino pressogli antichi of 1 825, and 
Andrea de Jorio’s La Mimica degli Antichi of 1832, which was 
especially concerned with the traditional gestures used to avert the 
evil eye. 

Modem scholarship on the evil eye may be truly said to have 
begun with Otto Jahn’s pioneering essay, “Uberden Aberglauben des 
bosen Blicks bei den Altem,” which appeared in 1855. It, like so 
many of the early treatises, concentrated upon ancient Greek and 
Roman examples of the evil eye, but it differed in its honest and 
erudite consideration of all facets of the evil eye complex, including 
the obviously phallic character o f aq many of t he apotropaic amulets. 
By the end of the nineteenth century, numerous essays had been 
written on the evil eye, though most of them were limited to 
descriptive reports from one particular area. Among the more general 
surveys of the subject was Jul es Tuc hmann’s remarkably detailed 
series of articles on “ La F ascination,” wKicE began to appear in the 
French folklore journal Melusine in 1884 and continued inter- 
mittently until 1901 . Tuchmann’s massive and impressive collection of 
citations on the evil eye drawn from a huge variety of sources in many 
languages (Gaidoz 1912) may well have been the inspiration for 
folklorist Arnold van Gennep’s delightful parody of the doctoral 
dissertation writer who tried but failed to write the definitive work on 
the evil eye (van Gennep 1967:32-36). A better-known nineteenth- 
century survey work is Frederick Thomas Elworthy’s The Evil Eye, 
first published in 1895. 

The next major effort, perhaps the most ambitious of all, was the 
encyclopedic two -vo lume work b v oculist S. Seliemann . Der Bose 
Blick und Verwandtesfp uBIished in 1910. This, or the 1922 version 
Die Zauberkraft des Auges und des Berufen, remains probably the 
best single source of information on the subject, at least in terms of 
sheer quantity of ethnographic data. Other landmark studies of the 
evil eye in the twentieth century include Westermarc k’s ex tensive 
consideration of the evil eye in Morocco (1926f3l4^7 8) and~Karl 
MelserPlTttvbrcxffi^ 1952) in the Rheinisches 


262 Alan Dundes 

Jahrbuch fur Volkskunde, the first covering the evil eye in the 
ancient and early Christian eras and the second treating the medieval 
and modern periods. Also worthy of mention are oculist Edward S. 
Gifford’s The Evil Eye : Studies in the Folklore of Vision (1958), 
classicist Waldemar Deonna’s marvelously learned and b rilliant Le 
Symbolisme de UOeil, posthumously published in 1 965, psychiatrist 
Joost A. M. Meerloo r s Intuition and the Evil Eye: The Natural 
History of Superstition (1971), and a collection of anthropological 
essays on the evil eye, The Evil Eye, edited by Clarence Maloney 
(1976). This latter group of fifteen essays consists primarily of 
ethnographic description and makes little reference to the voluminous 
literature devoted to the evil eye in classics, folklore, and psychiatry. 
It does, however, include a long, important paper by John M. Roberts, 
“Belief in the Evil Eye in World Perspective,” which carefully 
canvasses 186 diverse cultures to see if the evil eye occurs and, if so, 
with what other cultural variables it might meaningfully be statis- 
tically correlated. Still another comprehensive study is Thomas 
Hauschild’s dissertation Der Bose Blick: Indeengeschichtliche und 
Sozialpsychologische Untersuchungen (1979). 

The works mentioned thus far are essentially overviews of the evil 
eye belief complex but it should be noted that there are a number of 
valuable books and monographs on the evil eye in a given culture. 
Among the best of these are investigations in Scotland, R.C. 
Maclagan’s Evil Eye in the Western Highlands (1902); in Spain, 
Raphael Salillas’s La Fascinacion en Espana (1905); in Finland, 
Toivo Vuorela’s Der Bose Blick im Lichte der Finnischen Uberlie- 
ferung (1967); and in Sardinia, Clara Gallin i’s Dono e l yl al&eehio 
(1973). When one adds to these'JRe^itefaliy dozens on dozens of 
notes and articles that discuss the evil eye either en passant or in some 
depth, it is clear that one has an unmanageable number of sources 
available to consult for relevant information. 

Despite the enormous bibliographic bulk of the evil eye scholar- 
ship, it is not unfair to say that there have been few attempts to explain 
the evil eye belief complex in terms o f a hoiis.tIclhteirated theory. By 
far the majority of the discussions of the evil eye consist solely of 
anecdotal reportings of various incidents. Anthropologist Hocart 
summed up the situation aptly when he said (1938: 156): “There is a 
considerable literature about the evil eye, but it does little more than 
a dd ins tances to instances.” Unfortunately, the situation has not 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 


changed; and as Spooner puts it (1976:281): “Permutations of 
practice do not appear to lead to a satisfactory formulation of theory.” 

Formulations of theories of the evil eye do exist. Recent specula- 
tions about the possible origin and significance of the evil eye have 
included the suggestion that it is related to gaze behavior perhaps 
involving gaze aversion, common in many animal species (Coss 
1 974). With regard to gaze behavior, Erikson proposes ( 1 977:50, 58) 
that an infant experiences the unresponsive eye of an adult as a 
rejecting, hostile environment or “Other” (as opposed to self). Thus, 
according to Erikson, “the unresponsive eye becomes an evil one.” It 
has also been claimed that the evil eye is an ancient type of hypnotic 
phenomenon (MacHovee 1976). But probably the most widely 
accepted theory of the evil eye contends that it is based upon envy. In 
his celebrated Folkways, first published in 1906, Sumner argued that 
the evil eye depended upon primitive demonism and envy. According 
to Sumner (1960:434), “It is assumed that demons envy human 
success and prosperity and so inflict loss and harm on the successful.” 

There is no question that envy is somehow closely related to the 
evi l eye . This is clear in the earliest Near Eastern texts we have. The 
wor d envy i s etymologically derived from the Latin inyidia , which in 
turn comes from in videre, thus ultimately from “to see” or “seeing” 
as Cicero first observed(El worthy 1958:7; cf. Odelstierna 1949:72, 
n. 1 .). To see something is to want it, per haps . A common reaction to 
seeing a desirable object is to praiseTt, to admire it. An expression of 
admiration or praise is understood to imply at least a tinge of envy. 
Envy can accordingly be expressed either by eve or b xmouthior by 
botfi): Schoeck considers the evifeye to be a universal expression of 
malevolent envy (1955), but Spooner has criticized the envy theory, 
noting( 1 976:283) that“although it is perfectly valid and necessary at 
one stage of analysis, the anthropologist should attempt to build 
models at a higher stage of abstraction.” Spooner might also have 
realized that no theory can be persuasive unless or until it enables one 
to explain the particulars of a given custom or segment of human 
behavior. How doe s the notiog jofijeayy e xplain , for example, the 
specific details of fruit trees with ering, the common symptom of 
yawning, or the various gestures, such as spitting, e mployed to ward 
off tfuTevil eye. Spooner does ask why, since envy in some form is 
probably universal, it should give rise to the evil eye in some societies 
but not in others (1976:283). One can only conclude that whereas 



Alan Dundes 

env^ is surely a component of the overall evil eye complex, it is not 
sufficient in and of itself to explain the complex in all its concrete 

The same difficulties inhere in suggestions that the evil eye 
complex provides an outlet for the expression of aggression, or that it 
acts as an agent of social control. The question that must be addressed 

.does? Why are very young children and infants e speciaTlysusceptlble 
to tKe effects of the evil eye? Or, why is the butterfat content of milk in 
a chum magically removed? 

Psychoanalytic interpretations of the evil eye have also been 
partial. Because many of the ^potropaic amulets and gestures have 
unmistakable phallic elements(V alletfa~T78 7 : 1 8-25 ; Jahn 1855; 
^cfiaeTiVl?K5fWoiters 1909; Elworthy 1958:149-54; Seligmann 
1910:11:188-200; Deonna 1965:180-81), it has long been obvious 
that the male genitals ar e invo lved in some way with the evil eye 
complex. Since phallic gestureslike the fica (Leite de Vasconcellos 
1925:92) were used to ward off the evil ey e, and sinc^jnales often 
touched their genitals upon seeing a priest or other individual thought 
to haveTfteevil eye (Valla 1894:422n; Servadio 1936:403; n. 8) then 
it is not unreasonable to assume that the evil eye threatened to make 
men impotent ( Seligmann 1910:199; Servadio 1936). But if the evil 
eye constituted a danger to masculinity, why was it believed that a 
weaned infant who has returned to the breast would grow up to have 
the evil eye, and why wa s the evil eve e specially damaging to female 
animal s, such as cows? Roberts attempted a factor^haTysii^Fvano^ 
features associated with the evil eye in his cross-cultural survey; he 
found the highest correlation with milking and da iry product ion 
though he was unable to explain this linkage ( 1 976l2417"258). Of 
course, psychoanalysts have also argued that the eye could be a 
female symbol (Reitler 1913:160) with “the pupil representing the 
vagina, the lids the labia, and the lashes the pubic hair” (Tourney and 
Plazak 1 954:489). Is the eye a phallus, or is it a vagina, or i s it both (or 
neither)? And how would tEis possibly relate to injury to cows and 
their milk supply? 

Geza RoheirtL suggests (1952:356) that the key to the whole 
evil eye belief is oral jealousy and oral aggression. This would 
illuminate the apparent connection with nursing children as well as 
the appropriateness of the use of spitting or oral incantations to avoid 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 

the evil eye. But in this case, it would not be so obvious why phallic 
means should be equally effective. Roheim does not succeed, in my 
opinion, in reconciling the oral and phallic elements in the evil eye 

Freud himself, writing about the evil eye in his 1 91 9 essay on the 
‘uncanny,’ considered its origin to be fear of envy, coupled with the 
device of projection. “Whoever possesses something at once valuable 
and fragile is afraid of the envy of others, in that he projects onto them 
the envy he would have felt in their place” (1959:393). Tourney and 
Plazak follow this psychiatric tack by emphasizing the eye as an organ 
of aggression. They suggest (1954:491) that “with the utilization of 
the projective mechanism, fear of the evil eye may represent the 
manifestation of one’s own aggressive impulses attributed as being 
apart from the ego and acting in turn against it. A need for punishment 
because of guilt over hostility and aggression can be realized in the 
suffering of a recipient from the influence of the evil eye.” Through 
projection, the original would-be aggressor is spared feelings of guilt 
because ‘ ‘Jiiatc..yQjjL”..or.‘‘I.en vy you” has been transformed into “Y ou 
h^e?n£”jQrl‘,You,e By means of this proj ec tiv e tran sforma- 

tion, the active becomes the passive, the aggressor becomes theTvTc- 
firaThis may expjain,^andpow erful are so often thoug ht 
to have the evil e ye— popes and nobility have frequently been said to 
have it. The poor envy the rich and powerful, but this envy is 
transformed into the rich casting an evil eye at the poor. But this 
psychiatric notion does not really explicate all the particulars of the 
evil eye belief complex either. 

A plausible theory of the evil eye must be able to account fo r most, 
if not all, of the elements in the co mplex, including the manjjfe^yjiiale 
3 nd female components. Consider the following modem Greek cure 
for the evil eye, which involves the formula (Dionisopoulos-Mass 
1976:46): “If it is .a woman who has cast the eye, then de stroy her 
breasts . If it is ji man w ho has cast the eye, then cmsh fiisjenitals.” In 
a variant (Hardie 1 923: 1 70), “If a man didKmaylns eyes fall out. If 
a woman did it may her eyes fall out and In India, 

we find the same alternation of male and female attributes. According 
to Thurston (1907:254): 

When a new house is being constructed, or a vegetable garden or 
rice field are in flourishing condition, the following precautions 
are taken to ward off the evil eye: 



Alan Dundes 

a. In buildings — 

1 . A pot with black and white marks on it is suspended 
mouth downwards. 

2. A wooden figure of a monkey, with pendulous testes, is 

3. The figure of a Malayali woman, with protuberant 
breasts, is suspended. 

b. In fields and gardens — 

1 . A straw figure covered with a black cloth daubed with 
black and white dots is placed on a long pole. If the 
figure represents a male, it has pe nden t testes, and, if a 
woman, welhdev^lpped breasts. Sometimes male and 
female figures are placed together in an embracing 

2. Pots, as described above, are placed on bamboo poles. 

Since the evil eye is as d_angerous to female breasts (including cow’s 
udders) as to m ale genitals, it is necessary for the magical counter- 
measures to defend against both threats. The-question is: w hat 
the oretical underlying principle or principles, if any, can explain the 
whole range of phenomena believed to be caused by the evil ey e, fro m 
the wi thering of fruit trees, to the loss of milk from cows to impot enc e 
amongjnaales. The striking Similarity of eviTeye reports fromBifferent 
cultures strongly suggests that whatever the rationale behind it may 
be, it is likely to be cross-culturally valid . 

I suggest that the evil eye belief complex depends upon a number 
of inte rrelated folk ideas in Indo-European and Semitic worldview. I 
should like to enumerate them briefly before discussing them in some 

1 . Life depends upon liquid. From the concept of the “ water of lif e” 
to seme p^.inilk, blood, bile, saliv a, and the like, tbeconsistent 
principle is that liquid means life while loss of liquid means death. 
“Wet and D ry ” as an oppositional pair mea ns life and death . Liquids 
areTIving; drying is dying! 

2. There rs~^1finiTe~lTmifed amount of good — health, wealth, etc. — 
and because tharTsso^"any gainTy' onemdivIHual can only come at the 
expense of another (cf. Foster 1965). If one individual possesses a 
precious body fluid, semen, for instance, this automatically means 
that some other individual lacks that same fluid. 

3. Life entails an equilibrium model. If one has too little wealth or 
health, one is poor or ill. Such individuals constitute threats to persons 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 

with sufficient or abundant wealth and health. This notion may be in 
part a projection on the part of well-to-do individuals. They think they 
should be envied and so they project such wishes to the have-nots. On 
the other hand, the have-nots are often envious for perfectly good 
reasons of their own. 

4. In symbolic terms, a pair of eyes may be equivalent to breasts or 
testicles. A single ev e may be the phallus (especially the glans), the 
vulva, or occasionally the anus^The ful lness of life as exemplified by 
such fluids as mothef sjnilk or semen can thus be symbolizedby an. 
eyeand accordingly threats to one’ s supply of such precious fluids can 
appropriately be paanjfeS^ .bx„the jey& or eyes of others . 

I am not claiming that any of the above folk ideas or principles are 
necessarily consciously understood by members of Indo-European 
and Semitic cultures. They may or may not be. What I am proposing 
is that they are structural principles of thought among the peoples of 
these cultures. I hope to show eye 
but a vast range of trad itional behavior ranging from tipping to some 
specifics~dTburial customs. 

Documentation for the folk idea that life is liquid is amply 
provided by Richard Broxton Onians in hi s ..brilliant tour de force. The 
Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, 
the World, Time, and Fate, published in 1951. Onians is able to 
explain one of the rationales behind crematio n. Burning the dead 
e xpedites the “dry ing” process, the final removal of the liquid of life 
(1951:256). He remarks on the Greek conception of life as the 
gradual diminishing of liquid inside a man (195 1:215). I would add 
that the metaphor probably made sense in light of what was 
empirically observable in the case of fruits, among other items. Juicy 
grapes could become dry raisins; plums could become prunes, etc. 
With increasing age, the human face becomes wrinkled and these 
inevitable wrinkles could be logically construed as signs of the same 
sort of d^yiagprricfisjs that produced the wrin k l e s in rais ins an d prunes . 
It should also be pointed out that this Greek conception is also a 
manifestation of the notion of limited good (Foster 1965, Gouldner 
1965:49-51). Man is bom with only so much life force and he is 
therefore ever anxious to replenish it. Milk and jyine are, obvious 
sourfi fi&pfiiauid-G 95 1 :227), noted Onian^ and he correctly observes 
the content of toasts in this connection. One drinks “healths.” What 
Onians failed to understand is that healths are supposedly drunk to 
others, that is, accompanied by such verbal formulas as “Here’s to 



Alan Dundes 

voil”^‘ Here’s to vour health. ”_ or “Here’s long life t o you. ” What this 
means in termTof limited good, I submit, is: “ I drink, but not at your 
exgease-J am replenishing my liquid supply, but I wish no diminution 
in yours.” The very fact that a drinker mentions another person’s 
health before drinking implies that if he did not do so, that person’s 
health might suffer. In other words, driiiidX!^ .W^ formulaic 

prophylactic preamble might be deleterious to theLjat her person’s 
jiealth. In an unusual volume published in 1716 entitled^ Discourse 
of Drinking Healths, we find this thought articulated: “And what 
strange Inchantment can there be in saying or meaning, As I drink this 
Glass of Wine, So let another Man perish” (Browne 1716:19). 

Levi- Strauss, in a rare instance of ethnographic fieldwork, 
reports on a custom observed in lower-priced restaurants in the south 
of France (1969:58-60). Each table setting includes a small bottle of 
wine but etiquette demands that one does not pour the contents of the 
bottle into one’s own glass. Rather the wine is poured into the glass of 
an individual at a neighboring table. This individual will normally 
reciprocate by pouring the contents of his bottle into the initial 
pourer’s glass. Levi-Strauss explains this custom in terms of a 
structural principle, namely the principle of reciprocity: “Wine 
offered calls for wine returned, cordiality required cordiality.” This is 
not an implausible explanation, but this custom which reflects an 
attitude towards wine remarkably different from that towards food, as 
Levi-Strauss himself notes, may also exemplify the special rules 
governing the incorporation of liquids among Indo-European and 
Semitic peoples. The notion of limit ed good — as applied to the 
essential liquids of life — requires one to offer bev erages to others. If 
one drinks without regard to one’s neighbors, one risks being envied 
and becoming the object or victim of an evil eye. The reciprocity of 
courtesy is demonstrated in a Gaelic incantation against the evil eye 
reported from the island of Skye in the Hebrides. When washing in the 
morning (Mackenzie 1895:39), a person may recite: 

Let God bless my eye, 

And my eye will bless all I see; 

I will bless my neighbor 
And my neighbor will bless me. 

Numerous reports attest that eating in public is thought to be 
especially dangerous with respect to the evil eye. Westermarck 
(1904:211; cf. Gifford 1958:48-50), for example, notes that “the 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 

danger is greatest when you eat. To take food in the presence of some 
hungry looker-on is the same as to take poison; the evil — i-bas, as the 
Moors call it — then enters into your body. When jyou commence 
eating, everybody must either pa r take o f the meal or go away? T Tn 
Egypt, Lane ( 1895:262) reports that his cook would not purchase the 
fine sheep displayed in a butcher’s shop because “every beggar who 
passes by envies them; one might, therefore as well eat poison as such 
meat.” A report that appeared in the Russian paper Ilustriravansk 
Mir in 1881 (according to Gordon 1937:306) reflects a similar belief: 
“The Russian government turned over a convict sentenced to die to 
the Academy of Science for the purpose of testing the powers of [the] 
evil eye. The prisoner was starved for three days during which a loaf of 
bread was placed in front of him of which he was unable to partake. At 
the end of the third day, the bread was examined and found to contain 
a poisonous substance.” Gordon ( 1 937:307) observes that while the 
story proves nothing — the bread could easily have been spoiled by 
being kept in a damp cell for three days, the very fact that a newspaper 
could print the report shows the readiness of the public to believe in 
the power of the evil eye. 

One technique used in restaurants to avert the dangers of the evil 
eye is to offer . o n l ook e r s some of one’s food. In Spanish restaurants , 
for example, any person waiting to be seated at a table is frequently 
invited by patrons already eating to join them or share their food. This 
formulaic offer is inevitably refused but the point is that the invitation 
is made. Foster (1972:181) has described this very well: 

In Spain and Spanish America — to this day in small country 
inns — a diner greets each conceptual equal who enters the room 
with “ Gusta [Usted comer]?” (“Would you care to share my 
meal?”), thereby symbolically inviting the stranger (or friend) to 
partake of the good fortune of the diner. The new arrival ritually 
replies “Buen provecho” (“Good appetite,” i.e., may your food 
agree with you), thereby reassuring the diner that he has no 
reason to fear envy, and that he may eat in peace. The entrant 
normally would not think of accepting the invitation, and the 
courtesy appears to have the double function of acknowledging 
the possible presence of envy and, at the same time, eliminating 
its cause. 

After commenting upon the probably similar functioning of such 
ritual predining formulas as the French “bon appetit,” Foster 
proceeds to discuss the necessity for offering something to a waiter in 


Alan Dundes 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 


a restaurant. Since a waiter may also envy a diner, he needs to be 
given something to ensureJwiL*^^ In a fascinating 

brief survey of analogues to the word tip in a number of European 
languages, e.g., French po urboire, German Trinkgeld, Spanish 
prop ine . Po rtug uese gorgeta , Pol ish n a/mve7ETSwe^sh drincs, Fin- 
nish juomarabaa, Icelandic drykkjupeningar, Russian Chaevye 
[den’gi], and Croatian Napojnica, Foster concludes that the English 
word tin must com e from tipple ^ whie hmeans “to drink.” (This is 
obviously much more likely than the folk etymology often encoun- 
tered that tip is an acronymic formation from “to insure promptness” 
or tips from “to insure prompt service.”) While Foster is surely 
correct in stating (1972: 181) that “a tip, clearly, is money given to a 
waiter to buy off his possible envy, to equalize the relationship 
between server and served,” he fails to comment on the possible 
significance of the fact that t he waite r is invited to drink ( as opposed 
to eat). In the light of the present argument, it i s precisely liquids 
which must be offered to avert the evil eye. 

The use of a liquidFribeTsoto speak, is also found in other evil eye 
contexts. For example, in Scotland, 

A well-informed woman, an innkeeper, said that in cases where a 
person possessed of the Evil Eye admired anything belonging to 
another, no injury could follow if some little present were given 
to the suspected person on leaving ... In the case of churning the 
small present naturally takes the form of a drink of milk to be 
given to anyone suspected of the Evil Eye, and so a reciter said 
that one should always, for safety’s sake, give a visitor a drink of 
milk, and stated further that the beneficial effect was added to if 
the one who gives it first takes a little of it herself before handing 
it to the stranger (Maclagan 1902:22-123). 

The suggestion that the efficacy of the “tip” is increased if one first 
takes a little of the milk before offering it to the stranger is reminiscent 
of one of the folk theories of the evil eye, which claims a conne ction 
exists between bxeaSit-feeding p ractic es and the evil eye. One notion is 
thaTarflnfant allowed to drink freely from both breasts (rather than 

from just one) will grow up to have the evil eye. Another notion is that 
an infant once weaned who is allowed to return to the breast will 
likewise grow up to have the evil eye. Representative ethnographic 
data includes the following. In India (Crooke 1968:1:2), “One, and 
perhaps the most common theory of the Evil Eye is that ‘when a_child 
is born, an invisible spirit is born with it; and unless the mother keepsf 

one breast tied up for forty days, while she feeds the child with the 
other (in which case the spirit dies of hunger), the child gr ows up with 
the endowment of the Evil Eye, and whenever any person so endowed 
looksat anything constantly, something will happen to it.’ ” In Greece 
(Hardie 1 923 : 1 6 1 ), “It is known, however, that if a new-made mother 
suckles her infant from both breasts without an interval between, herv^^^^l 
glance will be baleful to the first thing on which it rests afterwards. 

Again, should a mother weakly yield to the tears of her newly weaned 
son and resume feeding him, he will, in later life, have the evil eye.” 

(This belief could function as a socially sanctioned charter or 
justification for mothers weary of breast-feeding and anxious to 
finalize weaning.) Similarly, in Greece, one of the things that can 
cause the evil eye is “if the baby resumes breast feeding after having 
been interrupted for a few days or weeks” (Blum and Blum 1 965 : 1 86, 

1970:146). Analogous informant testimonies concerning the pre- 
sumed causal relationship between reversing the weaning act and the 
evil eye have been reported in the Slovak-American tradition ( Stein 
1974) and in Romania (Murgoci 1923:357). (The folk theory that 
weaning reversal can cause the evil eye would seem to offer support to 
psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s claim that the primary prototype of 
envy in general is the infant’s envy of the “feeding breast” as an object 
which possesses everything (milk, love) the infant desires [Klein 
1957:10,29].) In all these cases, the infant is displaying what is 
construed as greedy behavior. Either he wants both breasts (when one 
is deemed sufficient) or he wishes to return to the breast after having 
been weaned (perhaps thus depriving a younger sibling of some of the 
latter’ s rightful supply of the limited good of mother’s milk). An infan t 
whojglsmore milk in this way is likely to become an adult who also 
attempts to get other forms of material good in this same way, that is, 
at someone else’s expense. Thus he will be an adult with the evil eye, a 
gre edy ind ividual who, craving more than he deserves, or needs, may 
seek to take from the bounty of others. (In this context, it might be 
more apt to say that tip derives not just from tipple, but ultimately 
from nipple.) One wonders if the yawning symptom of victims of the 
evil eye might not be reminiscent of weaning insofar as the mouth in 
the act of yawning is constantly opening without obvious material 

Confirmation of the importance of weaning and sibling rivalry in 
the evil eye belief complex comes from a curious detail in a 
remarkable legend which itself serves as a charm against the evil eye. 



Alan Dundes 

The text typically involves the personification of the evil eye, usually 
as a female demon, perhaps a Lilith, child- stealing figure. A saint or 
archangel encounters the she-demon and forces her to reveal all of her 
names (through the recitation of which she may henceforth be 
controlled) and to return any infants she has already carried off or 
devoured (cf. Gollancz 1912; Hazard 1890-91; Naff 1965:50-1; 
Montgomery 1913:259-62; Gaster 1900; Fries 1891; and Perdrizet 
1922:5-31). Gaster cites a Slavonic version of the legend (1900: 
139-42) in which it is the devil who steals and swallows a sixth infant 
after having similarly disposed of five previous ones. The mother 
Meletia dispatches her brother Saint Sisoe to recover her infants. 
When he confronts the devil and demands the return of the infants, the 
devil replies, “Vomit thou first the milk which thou has sucked from 
thy mother’s breast.” The Saint prays to God and does so. The devil, 
seeing this, regurgitates the six infants, who are safe and sound. In two 
seventeenth- century Greek versions cited by Gaster, the same motif 
recurs. Two saints, Sisynnios and Sisynodoros, demand that the 
villain Gylo return the children of their sister Melitena. The she- 
demon Gylo replies, “If you can return in the hollow of your hand the 
milk which you have sucked from your mother’s breast I will return 
the children of Melitena.” The saints pray and “they vomited at once 
into the hollow of their hand something like their mother’s milk.” 
Gylo then brings up the abducted children and reveals her other 
names (Gaster 1900:143-45; cf. 147-48). If the brother’s regurgita- 
tion of mother’s milk equals the restoration of infants, then one might 
logically assume that swallowing mother’s milk is symbolically 
equivalent to destroying infants. Since the protagonists are brother 
and sister, we appear to have a case of sibling rivalry revolving around 
the allocation of mother’s milk. Incidentally, the name of the 
personification of the evil eye, Gylo, may, according to Perdrizet 
(1922:25) who has studied the legend in some detail, be related to the 
Arab ghoul , which may in turn be related to the Babylo nian g allon , 
which means “demon.” The root may possibly be related to a variety 
of Indo-European words associated with greediness in drinking . 
Consider Trench goulu , meaning “gluttonous,” or gueule, meaning 
“ the mouth of an animal^” wit h sueulee, m eaning “ a large mouthfu l.” 
In English, it may be related to such words as gullet, glut, gul p, sully, 
and possibly gurgle, eobble. eorge. and eureltaUo n7'Gulch once 
me ant 4 4 drunkarcF or^ToTswallow or devour greedily” while gulf once 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 

referred to a voracious appetite (and may derive from the Greek for 
bosom). To engulf means to swallow. 

Water is, of course, necessary for the sustenance of life, and life 
itself is empirically observed to begin in some sense with an 
emergence from a flood — of amniotic fluid, perhaps providing a 
human model or prototype for creation myths involving supposed 
primeval waters or floods (cf. Casalis 1976). But it is the metaphorical 
and symbolic quests for water that are most relevant to our considera- 
tion of the evil eye. Onians explains that the idea that life is liquid and 
the dead are dry accounts for the widespread conception of a “water of 
life” (1951:289). The search for the water of life in fairy tales (cf. 
motif E80, Water of life), which is found throughout the Indo- 
European and Semitic world, as well as the common quest for the 
fountain of youth (cf. motif D1 338.1 . 1 , Fountain of youth), certainly 
support the notion that liquid is life. Hopkins ( 1 905:55) distinguishes 
the two motifs, arguing that the “fountain of youth” comes from India 
while the 44 water of life” stems from Semitic tradition. In any case, the 
magic liquid can cure wounds and even bring the dead back to life. It 
can also rejuvenate, making the old young again. If the passage of life 
consists of the gradual diminution of finite fluids, then the only logical 
way to reverse the process would be to increase one’s fluid supply. 
Whether fluids were taken internally (by drinking) or externally (by 
bathing, baptism, or being anointed), the life-giving or -renewing 
principle is basically the same. 

If increases in liquid mean health, then decreases might signify the 
opposite (Onians 1951:212-14). I think it is quite possible that the 
English word co mes ultimat ely from the Latin siccus , w hich 
means “dry.” Th e total loss of liqui d, that is, loss of life, would mean 
death. And this is why in the Indo-European and Semitic world, the 
d ead are_sp e&fi£a^ thirsty .The following custom 

is typical (Canaan 1929:59): “Water is not only essential for the 
living but also for the dead. As in ancient days so also now the 
Palestinian is accustomed to place for the dead ajar containing water; 
the only difference is that we often find on the tombs a shallow or deep 
cup- like cavity. Some believe that the soul of the dead visits the tomb 
and expects to find water to quench its thirst; therefore they that visit 
the tombs of the dead fill these cups with water.” Onians in writing of 
the thirst of the dead notes (1951 :285) that in Babylonia the provision 
of water to the dead fell to the deceased’s nearest kinsman. This 



Alan Dundes 

kinsman was known as a man’s “pourer of water.” One Babylonian 
curse was: “May God deprive him of an heir and a pourer of water.” 
The widespread distribution of the conception of the thirsty dead has 
been amply described (cf. Bellucci 1909 and especially Deonna 

Certainly the presumed thirst of the dead is a major metaphor in 
ancient Egyptian funerary ritual. According to Budge ( 1 909:34), one 
of the oldest of the ceremonies performed for the dead was called the 
“Opening of the Mouth.” The deceased was told, “Thy mouth is the 
mouth of the sucking calf on the day of its birth” (Budge 1909:60, 
156, 209). Various offerings of food and libation were presented to the 
deceased, most of them specifically said to come from the Eye of 
Horus. “Accept the Eye of Horns, which welleth up with water, and 
Horns hath given unto thee” (Budge 1909:147; cf. 117, 129, 185). 
The Eye of Horus as a breast or other body part containing liquid is 
understood to refresh the deceased by offering him the necessary 
additional “fluid of life” to replace the fluids lost before death or 
during the process of mummification (Budge 1909:46, 52). 
f In the light of the centrality of li quid as a metaphor for life, it makes 

I sense for envy to be expressed in liquid terms. The Have-nots envy the 
' haves and desire their various liquids. Whether it is th e dead w hagnvy 
i the living (as in vampires who require the blood of the living and who 
i are commonly referred to as “bloodthirsty”), the old who envy th e 
! young, or the barren who enyy those w ith child ren, it is th e b lood, the 
I sapor vitality of youth, the materna 4.milk, or ma^liii£_sempnthatis 
1. coveted. The notion of limited goo3"1neans that there is not really 
t enough to go around. Thus an admiring look or statement (of praise) is 
! understood as a wish for precious fluid. If the looker or declarer 
| receives liquid, then it must be at the expense of the object or person 
! admired. So the victim’s fruit tree withers from a loss of sap or his 
j cow’s milk dries up. The point is that the most common effect of the 
! evil eye is a drvins up pr ocess. 

There have long beencTues revealing the desiccating nature of the 
evil eye. A thirteenth- century Dominican, Thomas of Cantinpre, 
claimed that if a wolf and a man meet and the wolf s ees the man first, 
the man cannot speak because the rays from the wol T’.^eye~dfyu p the 
spiritus of human vision, which in turn dries up the human spiritus 
generally (Tourniy'ahcfPlazak 1954:481). At the beginning of the 
twentieth century, twenty-three informants in Spain mentioned 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 

seca r sc, “dryin&put,” as one of the characteristic symptoms of the 
evil eye(5alillas 1 905:44). An interesting clinical parallel is provided 
in a case of schizophrenia where a nurse believed a private eye (not a 
detective but an actual eye) was watching her and that it had the power 
to draw vital body fluids from her (Tourney and Plazak 1954:488). 

One of the oldest texts extant that treats the evil eye is a Sumerian 
one; it too confirms the association with water. It begins, “The eye 
ad-gir, the eye a man has . . . The eye afflicting man with evil, the ad- 
gir. Unto heaven it approached and the storms sent no rain.” The evil 
eye even takes away water from the heavens. The Sumerian text 
suggests the cure involves “Seven vases of meal- water behind the 
grinding stones. With oil mix. Upon (his) face apply” (Langdon 
1913:1 1-12, cf. Ebeling). One may compare this with a Neapolitan 
charm from Amalfi (Williams, 1961:156), which is nearly four 
thousand years later: “Eye of death, Evil Eye, I am following you with 
water, oil and Jesus Christ.” The protective power of fluids including 
water is apparent in many ancient texts referring to the evil eye. For 
example, in the Berakoth, a book of the Babylonian Talmud, we read, 
“Just as the. fishes in the sea are coverecLby water and the evileye has 
no power over the”m, so the^evifeye has no power over the seed of 
JosHplf’ [Simon 1948:120(20a), 340(55b)]. Onaportal plaque from 
Arslan Tash in Upper Syria, a Phoenician incantation text inscribed 
in an Aramaic script of the early seventh century B.C. (Caquot and 
Mesnil du Buisson 1971) urges the caster of the evil eye to flee. It 
begins, according to Gaster (1973, but cf. Cross 1 974:486-90) with 
these words: “Charm against the demon who drains his victims.” This 
suggests the antiquity of the idea that thej^ilj^^ 
to the b ody fluids. In modem Saudi Arabia, a person who is accused 
(^ha ringfhe' ev ij eye m ay be labelled by the adjective ash-hab which 
means “firey and de sic cated .” A person with the evil eye is thus one 
whnj s dried _ put, in need of liquid refreshment. 

Once it is understood that the evil eye belief complex depends 
upon the ba lance of liq uid equ ilibrium, it becomes possible to gain 
insight into various apotropaic techniques. For example, on the back 
of a large number of ancient amulets used to keep the evil eye away 
appears a Greek ins criptiOT'meamng ‘ ‘ I d rink,” Bonner (1950:213) 
and other scholars puzzled by this inscription felt that this meaning 
was inappropriate and suggested alternative translations such as “I 
am hungry” or “I devour.” But if these meanings were intended, one 



Alan Dundes 

might ask, why should “I drink” appear so often. Bonner even went so 
far as to suggest that “perhaps the ‘error 5 occurred on the first 
specimen manufactured in some important workshop and was slav- 
ishly copied.” The point is surely that the folk know (in some sense) 
what they are doing — even if scholars do not. In the light of the present 
hypothesis, “I drink” makes perfect sens&-as-theinscriptionof an anti- 
e vil eye amulet. 

Or consider the following detail of a contemporary Algerian 
Jewish custom. Whoever removes the effects of the evil eye from 
someone afflicted evidently runs some risk of having the effects 
transferred to him. “Pour eviter que le ‘mauvais oeil 5 enleve au 
malade ne penetre en lui l’operateur apres avoir termine absorbe un 
verre d’un liquide quelconque (eau, anisette, vin, etc.) que lui offrent 
les parents du malade” (Bel 1 90373’64). Clearly, the incorporation of 
liquid — whether it is water or wine is immaterial — is thought to guard 
against the dangerous effects of the evil eye. 

Structurally speaking, the various apotropaic methods employed 
to avoid or cure the evil eye ought to be isomorphic. But how is 
showing a phallus or the fica isom orphic with spittin g? I would argue 
tHarair these amulets or gestures signify the production of some form 
of liquid. Whether the liq uid is semen or saliva, it provides proof that 
the victim’s supply of life force is undfminished. Spitting is also an act 
of insult and it is quite likely that spitting as a counteractant to the evil 
eye represents a devaluation of the victim. In other words, a beautiful 
baby whether praised or admired or not represents a potential object 
of attack by an evil eye. If one spits on the baby (or asks the possessor 
of the evil eye to spit on the baby), one is mitigating the praise or 
admiration expressed. It is as if to say this is not a beautiful, admirable 
object (and that it should not be subject to an evil eye attack). On the 
other hand, spitting involves the projection of liquid for all to see. 
Crombie ( 1 892:252) was quite right in remarking that saliva seemed 
to contain the element of life, but he did not realize that-Sj ^iva can also 
be symboli cally equivalent to se men ( cf. Onians 1 95 1 :233, n.5). The 
initial consonant “cIusTer sp occurs in both sputum and sperm , 
suggesting the emission ofTIquid, but even more persuasive is the 
unambiguous metaphorical evidence provided by the idi om “spitten 
im^ge' ,J -tor “^pit jnd i mage” or “spi tting image”), used to refer to a 
child who greatly resembles his fatlTenfcObnes 1951:63, 273). The 
symbolic equivalence is also attested in jokes. Legman (1968:584) 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 


reported the following abbreviated text collected in Scranton, Penn- 
sylvania, in 1930: “Two twins are conversing in the womb. ‘W bo’s 
that bald-headed guy that comes in here every night and spits in my 

The important role of saliva in the evil eye belief complex is 
confirmed by an interesting practice reported in Greece and Saudi 
Arabia. In the Oasim district in north central Saudi Arabia, in cases 
where someone is afflicted by the evil eye and it is not known who 
caused the misfortune, someone representing the victim, usually a 
small male child, stands in a public area, for example, outside a 
mosque with a small bowl half filled with water and asks each male 
passerby to spit into it. This is done so as not to embarrass anyone in 
particular by accusing that person of having the evil eye. After 
everyone or, at least, a good many individuals have expectorated into 
the container (or made a pseudo- spitting gesture), the container is 
taken to the victim who drinks half the contents and anoints his body 
with the other half. In eastern Greece in the beginning of this century, 
a village girl fell ill. Her mother, fearing that the cause was the evil eye, 
hired a curer (female) to go to the church to collectforty spits in a glass 
from people going into the church. The curer kept track of the number 
of spits by counting kernels of corn. When she counted forty kernels, 
she brought the glass to the victim who drank it. The victim recovered 
within a few days. However aesthetically unpleasing or hygienically 
unsound such a practice may be adjudged by nonmembers of the 
cultures concerned, the cure certainly does exemplify the principle of 
liquid intake as a counteractant tojhe evil eye. 

^AsTortheMalabar cu^^ male figures with 

pendulous testes and female figures with protuberant breasts used to 
ward off the evil eye can also be understood as liquid-bearing 
symbols. The l arge t&stes and breasts presumably repr esent an 
abun dance of s emen and milk . (The overturned pot may suggest that 
the abundance is so great that hoarding is not necessary.) The 
symb olic equivalence nfJhr easts and eves is suggested by a variety of 
data. In ancient European iconography cjj^es- .with s hort lin es 
radiati ng from th e. circumference were u sed to sy mboliz e b oth e yes 
^jiL^reasts^ Crawford 1957 :4 r,~4H796~~98; cf Deonna 1965:64; 
Meerloo 1971:36). In contemporary German folk speech, dozens of 
idioms support the fact that “Eine der merkwurdigsten Gleichsetz- 
ungen im Vokabular der Sexualsprache ist Auge = Brust” (Bomeman 


Alan Dundes 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 


1971). The interchangeability of eyes and breasts is also obvious from 
an examination of different versions of the folktale or legend “Present 
to the Lover” ( Aame-Thompson tale type 706B). Its summary reads 
“Maiden sends to her lecherous lover (brother) her eyes (hands, 
breasts) which he has admired” (cf. Williamson 1932, Gonzalez 
Palencia 1932). Further data come from contemporary tattooing. 
“Open eyes are tattooed on American sailors’ lids or around their 
nipples because the sailors believe that such tattoos will keep watch 
for them when they are tired or asleep” (Parry 1933:136), a belief 
probably identical to the one that accounts for the widespread Indo- 
European custom of painting an eye on either side of the bows of ships 
and boats (Homell 1923, 1938). But the important point here is that 
the eyes are sometimes drawn around the nipples, which would 
exemplify the breast-eye equation. 

Similar folkloristic data suggests that testicles and eyes may be 
symbolically equivalent on occasion. In Irish mythology, we find 
motif J229.12, prisoners given a cjxoice between emasculatian_and 
bli nding, a n alternative reminiscent of Qedipiis’ self-imgpsed^iunish-^ 
ment of blinding fora sexual crime. (For a discussion of blindness and 
castration"' as" aflomotifs, see Uundes 1962:102.) One may note the 
same allomotifs in another European narrative setting. The plot 
summary of Aame-Thompson tale type 1331, The Covetous and the 
Envious, is as follows: Of two envious men one is given the power of 
fulfilling any wish on the condition that the other shall receive double. 
He wishes that he may lose an eye. Legman (1975:61 1) reports a 
version from New York City in 1936: “A Jew in heaven is told that 
whatever he asks for, Hitler will get double. He asks that one of his 
testicles be removed.” This kind of incontrovertible data strongly 
supports the idea tha t testicles a n d eves are in some sense inter - 
changeable. We can now better understand the modem Greek 
fbrmuTa'cited earlier, in which it is wished that the possessor of the evil 
eve suffer crushed genita ls or burst breasts , in otherwordsTtharlils^f 
her vital fluids be wasted. (The wish for breasts to burst may also 
imply a wish for the death of a female evil eye caster’s infant — an 
event which might tend to cause the mother’s unused breasts to swell 
to the bursting point.) 

One detail we have not yet explained is the s ingu larity of the evil 
eye, and I mean singularity in the literal sense. Why the evil eye 
instead of evil eyes? In most languages the idiom for evil eye expresses 

the notion of a single eye. To my knowledge, none of the previous 
scholarship devoted to the evil eye has even raised this elementary but 
intriguing question. Any plausible theory of the evil eye should be able 
to account for it. 

To better understand this facet of the evil eye belief complex, we 
may profitably examine ancient Egyptian beliefs. According to Moret 
(1902:40-47), all living things were created by eye and voice. Life 
was an emission of fecund light from the Master of rays. Above all, it 
was the sun Ra who was the primary creator, using his eye, the sun, 
“Eye of Horus.” (For the sun as a heavenly eye generally, see 
Weinreich 1 909.) The solar virtues of the gods were transmitted to the 
pharaoh through a magical fluid called Sa . That Sa which flowed in 
the veins of the pharaoh, son pf Ra, was the “liquid of Ra/’fhegold of 
the^SSXrays. Sa was emitted by a process termed sotpou, a verb used 
to describe the shooting forth of water, flames, and”arr6ws and the 
ejaculation of semen (Moret 1902:47n.2; cf. Roheim 1972:162). 
Another sourcFoflife, "Incidentally, besides the liquid of Ra, was the 
milk of Isis (Moret 1902:48, n.l), which suggests that the symbolic 
equivalence of semen and mil k is of c onsiderable antiquity (cf. Jones 
1951b:233; Legman 1975:1 3 9f 3 67)7 

The curious verb sotpou with all its nuances reminds us of the term 
eja cuIq IwmSqv the actio n of the e vil eye. F rancis B aeon in 1 6 25 spoke 
of the act of envy producing an “ej a cu lation” of the e^e^and many 
reports of the evif eye among Greeks and Greek-Americans use the 
term ejaculate in speak ing of preventatives, e.g., ejaculating the 
phrase ^garllcm your eyeF’1(L5wiorr Georges 1962:70). 

The eye shoots forth its rays just as the Egyptian sun, the eye of 
Horus, emitted its life-force liquid, Sa. The sun’s rays, according to 
Ernest Jones (1951b:303), are often regarded as “a symbol of the 
phallus as well as of semen.” The phallic interpretation of the sun with 
its rising perceived as a metaphorical form of erection was first 
suggested more than a hundred years ago (Schwartz 1874; cf. Jones 
1951b:278, 285) and it certainly puts solar mythology in anew light! 
What is important in the present context is that the sun is both phallus 
and eye. Noteworthy also is that jettatore, the common term in 
southern Italy for the possessor of an evil eye, andejaculatian. come 
from the s ame Latin root... - 

In 1 9 KTEmest Jdiies commented, in the course of discussing the 
power of the eye in hypnotism, on various beliefs in magical fluids 



Alan Dundes 

including so-called magnetic fluid. (In this connection it is of interest 
that a report of the evil eye mechanism in Corsica [Rousseau 1 976:6] 
suggests that the force involved may be a kind of fluid, a fluid that is 
released after an unguarded compliment or expression of admiration.) 
Jones noted (1910:239) that the magnetic fluid was principally 
emitted from the hypnotist’s eye; and he suggested that such a belief in 
the influence of the human eye, for good or ill, had its origin in the 
notion that the eye and its glance were symbolically regarded as the 
expression of the male organ and its function. F reud too spoke of “the 
substitutive relation between the eye and the male member which is 
seen to exist in dreams and myths and phantasies” ( 1 959:383-84). In 
the case of the phallus, one is tempted to observe, the glance might 
come from the glans. If one looks at the glans of a penis, it is not 
impossible to imagine it as an eye, the urinary meatus serving as a 
surrogate pupil. 

What is startling about this notion is that iiy^nogiaphic represen- 
tations of the phallu s with an eye do occur. A number of scholarsTiavtr 
noted the exis'tencroniTel? ^a7/^I"Q^T (2m^ (Seligmann 1910:2:28; 
Servadio 1936:405; Perdrizet 1922:31; Deonna 1965:70), but none 
have theorized about its significance. The idea of aph^usjwitharLgye 
is no_ strange r than contemporary risque puns on cockeye (Legman 
1968:241). Even more germane is some striking evidence from 
Arabic folk speech. In the fifteenth-century Arabic classic The 
Perfumed Garden (Nefzawi 1963:166, 176), epithets for a man’s 
sexual parts include el aaouar, “the one-e yed ,” and abou aine, “ he 
with one eve. ” The Arabic word for eye is similar to the H ebrew wor d 
a vi p, which means both “e ye” and “ well ” (Gifford 1958:81). One of 
the biblical verses used in phylacteries ward off the evil eye was 
Genesis 49:22: “Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a 
well,” because of the understood play on words. Joseph andi hte 
de scendants w ere fruitful even tho u gh ne x t to a well (= eye) The 
strength of the liquid metaphor even in the twentieth century is 
perhaps signalled by the fact that “ Maiyeh , water, in colloquial 
Arabic is also used as the name of male semen, the life medium” 
(Canaan 1929:58). 

The folk notion of the penis as the one-eyed also occurs in 
Walloon folklore. According to an anonymous report in Kryptadia 
(1902:24), a traditional epithet for the phallus is li bwegne, a dialect 
form of le borgne, which means “one-eyed.” We are told that this 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 


remarkable appellation can be understood by the “ ressembl ance 
vague que la gland et ses levres presentent_ avec un . oeil._et7s frs 
paupieres.” However, the resemblance cannot be all that vague if we 
fmdlhe same one-eye idiom in other cultures! The tradition of the 
Walloon metaphor is confirmed by the reporting of an additional 
illustration: “sain-ni-s-bwegne,” which is explicated as “saigner 
son borgne, c’est-a-dire pisser.” If bleeding or, more figuratively, 
draining the one-eye refers to urination, then this would certainly 
support the idea that an eye containing liquid might represent a 

We need not go so far afield as Arabic and Walloon folklore for 
the idea that a third eye, like a third leg, c an be a circumlocution for 
th e ph allus. The fact thatthelphallus is the third eye or leg would be in 
accord with the phallicism of the number three in Indo-European 
tradition, with the phallus cum testicu lis perceive d as a triform clus ter 
(Dundes 1968:420, n.l). The phallus as the one-eyed has been 
reported in American folklore. One of the “unprintable” folk beliefs 
from the Ozarks collected by Vance Randolph in 1946 has been 
published by G. Legman. It concerns the custom of the so-called 
dumb supper by means of which young women learn the identity of 
their future husbands. In most versions of the custom, the girls prepare 
a supper in total silence and then await the arrival of the first male 
visitor, who is supposedly a spouse- to-be. In Randolph’s account of a 
prank played around the turn of the century, a “local ruffian” 
overhears the plans of two young girls near Green Forest, Arkansas. 
Here is part of the story: “Exactly at midnight the two girls sat down 
and bowed their heads. The door opened very slowly, and in came a 
big man walking backwards* clad only in a short undershirt. Ap- 
proaching the table he bent forward, took his enormous tool in hand, 
and thrust it backwards between his legs, so that it stuck right out over 
the food on the table. One of the girls screamed and fled into the ‘ other 
house’ crying ‘Maw, maw, he’s thar! He’s come a long way, an’ he’s 
only got one eye!’ ” (Legman 1975:823). Whether or not the prank 
actually occurred is immaterial in the present context. What is 
important is that a narrative collected in 1 946 refers to a phallus as a 

one-eyed man. ~ 

"'Even more striking is the widespread joke reported from both 
America and Europe in which fleas conceal themselves next day to 
compare notes. The flea who spent the night in the vagina reports that 



Alan Dundes 

a b ald-h eaded, and in some versions a one-eved. man e ntered and spat 
.Qn him (Legm an 1 968:585-586). This is not only another instance of 
the phallus d escribed as one-eyed, it also exemplifies the equivalence 
,pf sp itting a nd e j aculati on. 

If a healthy eye,' that is, a phallus, can. spit. or ejacul ate, then an 
unhealthy one cannot. Given this logic, it is not impossible to imagine 
*ffiata larger, more powerful eye may rob a given eye of its ability to 
I produce liquid, or of the precious liquid itself. Thejdeathat an evil eye 
absorbs or suc ks up liquid as opposed to a good ey e, wh ich emits 
liquid, is paralleled by an analogous folk belief attached to snakes aricT 
serpents. La Barre in his insightful discussion of the phallic symbol- 
ism of serpents observes that snakes are commonly endowed with 
such body image features as feathers or hair, despite the fact that “no 
snake in the world has either hair or feathers” ( 1 962:61). Snakes are 
also believed to be able to suckle human breasts and to drink milk (La 
Barre 1962:94; cf. Aarne- Thompson ta le type 28 5, The Child and th e 
Snake, in wh ich- a - sna ke d rin k s-foo mthe child’ s milk b ottle). The point 
is that phalluses in the form of snakes or evil eves are thoug ht to have 
the power, of. stealing jireciou s liquids. 

If the phallus is the “one-eyed,” then it is at least reasonable to 
speculate that one-eyed objects or persons in folklore might have 
.phaIli£_connotations. The tale of Polyphemus (cf Aarne-Thompson 
tale type 1 137, The Ogre Blinded) might be examined in these terms. 
Odysseus makes his escape by thrusting a burning mass into the 
giant’s single eye. It may be of interest that one reported technique for 
removing the threat of an evil eye is to “blind the eye” ( Westermarck 
1926:1:434—35; Stillman 1970:90), while another entails a “sym- 
bolic burning of the eye” (Stillman 1970:85), which would be an 
extreme form of desiccating it. Analogous perhaps to the rationale of 
cremation discussed earlier, this technique would remove all liquid 
from the hostile eye. 

With respect to Polyphemus, Comhaire (1958:26) remarks that 
while Homer consistently speaks of the one eye of the Cyclops, he 
does mention eyebrows in the plural. This suggests that the eye may 
be a nonliteral or symbolic one. As early as 1913, Reitler suggested 
that the eye of Polyphemus represented the father’s phallus and that 
Odysseus’s blinding of Cyclops represented a son’s castration of his 
father (cf. Glenn 1978:151-52). Reitler’ s Freudian discussion began 
with a consideration of a curious Austrian folk t o y. Ilisalittl&wnoden 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 

man. When his head is pushed down, a potent phallus emerges from 
under his clothing. Not only does this toy equate th e head wit h th e. 
jphallu s, but the h e ad of the toy has three eyes. Besides the usual two, a 
third one appears above Them right in the middle of the forehead. 
Reitler assumes .the third eve .represent s, the phallus 11913:1611. 

In folk tradition, the eye of the one-eyed giant is centered (cf. motif 
F5 3 1.1. 1.1, Giant with one eye in middle of forehead). Onians 
presents much evidence to show th at the head is the male gen i tal orga n 
dis placed u pward ( 1 951:1 09-10, 234, n.6). If the head can represent 
the male genital organ, and if the phallus is perceived as a single eye, 
then it would be perfectly appropriate for the eye to be centrally 
located. One must remember, after all, that single eyes situated in the 
middle^of ibreheads do not occur in natureTWe are dealing with 
fantasy. The importance of the middle oTtHe forehead is also signalled 
by the idea in Lebanese-American custom that a counteractant blue 
bead ( against the evil eye) “to be truly effective shou ld s uspend from 
ffiejforehea d to lie betw een the child’s eyes” (Naff 1965:49). The 
l ocatio n-ofthe third eye in the middl e of the f orehea d is also paralleled 
by the efficacy of the middle finger, th e so-calle d digitus infami s or 
digitus impudicus (Seligmann 1910:2:183-84), in wardin g off or 
curmgfhe ill effects of the evil eye. Typically, spittle is placed on the 
rni33Ie“finger aniTapplieB tolEe infant’s forehead (Napier 1879:35). 
The phallus is often considered to be a third leg placed obviously in 
the mi ^^hg tWeeirthe two regular legs. 

'^'"The equivalence of eye and phallus may be suggested in ancient 
Egyptian mythology when Horns battles Set. Set tears out one of 
Homs’ s eyes and Horns counters by tearing off one of Set’s testicles. 
In this connection, it is interesting that the Eye of Homs presented to 
the deceased in Egyptian funeral ritual is said to be the one devoured 
by Set, who later vomited itup(Budge 1909:134-135,255); andeven 
more significantly, the deceased is told, “The Eye of Homs has been 
presented unto thee and it shall not be cut off from him by thee” 
(Budge 1909:128, 245). In a variant text, “The Eye of Homs hath 
been presented unto thee, and it shall not be cut off from thee” (Budge 

In Irish mythology, we find B alor^ a famous robber, who had an 
eye in the middle of his fo rehead ( K rappe 1927:1-43). Interestingly 
enough, B alofTw a s an evil eye a nd he used it to steal a wonder cow. 
The use o f* an evil eye to steal cattle is, of course, very much a part of 



Alan Dundes 

the evil eye complex in the Celtic world and elsewhere. The evil Balor 
is eventually slain by his grandson Lug who, as prophesied, “thrust a 
red-hot bar into Balor’ s evil eye and through his skull so that it came 
out on the other side” (Krappe 1 927:4). The antiquity of this notion of 
a male third eye is suggested by its possible occurrence in Sumer, 
where EnkiLEaLalfe gedly bor e.the-£pithet “Nun-igi-ku, the god with 
the gleaming ey e.” Reportedly this was described as “the god with the 
holy eye in his forehead” (Van Buren 1955:164, 169). In Indie 
mythology, Siva has a third eye . In light of the hypothetical phallic 
association of the eye in the forehead, it is of more than passing 
interest that Siva’s cult consisted largely of the worship of his phallus 
(O’Flaherty 1975:137)7 1 he thircfeye of Siva has beerTinterpretedln 
an erotic sense (O’Flaherty 1969). 

I should like to suggest a logical, albeit magical, paradigm that also 
supports the idea that there is a phallic component of the evil eye. The 
paradigm is based upon the principle of homeopathic magic, in which 
a form of a dangerous object is itself used as a prophylactic 
counteragent. In Turkey and surrounding areas, for example, blue 
eyes are considered to be dangerous, perhaps evil eyes ( Westermarck; 
1^2^Tl7440) Xawsorr ~( 1910:9), who had Blue e yes, reported how 
difficult this„in^id&..the .conduct of fieldwork in Greece. He was often 
taken aback at having his ordinary salutation, “Health to you,” 
answered only by the sign of the cross. Yetthecolor blue in the Near 
East js also regar ded as protective against the evil eye ( Westermirck 
T92b: 1 :440; Lawson 1 9 1 0: 1 2-1 3). The “likejj gainst like” principle 
also applie s to eyes themselves. Eye amulets are commonly used 
(Westermarck 1926:17459; Elworthy 1958:133). Bonner has noted 
that “the commonest of all amulets to ward off the evil eye consists of 
an apotropaic design which has been found on numerous monuments, 
and which, though subject to slight variations, remains the same 
through several centuries. It represents the eye, wide open, subjected 
to various injuries and assailed by a variety of animals, birds and 
reptiles” (Bonner 1950:97, cf. 211). The technical name of this 
design, Bonner discovers, is reported in a passage in the Testament of 
Solomon , an important source for the study of demonology dating 
perhaps from early in the third century (McCown 1922:108). In this 
passage, each of the thirty-six decans, or segments, of the zodiac is 
required to tell the king his name, his power, and the means of 
guarding against him. The thirty-fifth says, “My name is Rhyx 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 

Phtheneoth. I cast the glance of evil at every man. My power is 
annulled by the graven image of the much suffering eye.” Conybeare’s 
translation of the relevant passage ( 1 899:38) is “The thirty-fifth said: 
‘I am called Phthenoth. I cast the evil eye on every man. Therefore, 
the eye much- suffering, if it be drawn, frustrates me.’ ” 

The paradigm then can be sketched as follows. The color blue 
causes the evil eye but the color blue is used on amulets to ward off the 
evil eye. An eye cau ses the evil evehut an image of an eyp is; ii kpH to 
wanLof f tfie evil eveT rTdw^mething. that is, something analogousTo 
an algebraic unknownTgangesThe evil eve, but a n amulet or gesture 
r epresen ting a phallus or vulva wards off the evil eyeTIfouFparadigm 
is valid and'^rfS2SoSffi^ of the “causes” of the 

evil eye must be the phallus or vulva. "" 

TheHprs^h oe~a^nd cresc ent moon — charms of both shapes are 
used to ward off the evil eye — co uld repres ent th e female genitals. The 
symbolic-sq^ and female genitals is substantiated by a 

well-known pretended obscerfe ficfdle:7rversibn recounted by Bessie 
Jones of Georgia to enliven a discussion workshop at a folk festival in 
Berkeley, California, in 1963, is representative: “Whafs round and 
hair„all-around itandjiQ^ but water comes out?” The answer is 
(Cf. riddles 1 425 ,1 4267 and T443-447^Hair Above, 
Hair Below” in Taylor 1951.) The yulva-a&.ni alefic ent object would 
also explain Frachtenberg’s observation that “the glanceTiFtHe eye of 
a . w o m a n dLuriugLerme p er iod was exte mely dr eaded by the 

Zoroastrians” (1918:421). Clearly, a woman w ho was Insiriphinod , a 
lifeiljLiid,would xepresentathreatto the life fluids possessed byothers 
(potential victims of the evil eye). According - to a limited-good 
worldview, tfie loss of ipe nstrual blood would require m aking up the 
liq uid deficit — at someone el se’s exp ense. 

The association between the eye and the genital areas may also 
explain the curious belief that tpou, much- c oital activi ty (Meerloo 
197 1 :54)jor ;exce^sive.masturba^on ^wjUlead to b lindn essJVlasturba- 
tory ejaculation causes a loss of liquid and the eye would reflect this 
by dimming with each successive loss. Gifford ( 1 958: 1 66) reminds us 
of Francis Bacon’s no te that the ancient authorities believed “much 
Use_ofVenys-dott dimjhe^ight.” Bacon was puzzled that eunuchs 
were also dim-sighted but if their organs could not produce semen, 
then this lack of liquid life force might be responsible for poor vision — 
at least according to the folk theory. The logic is remarkably 



Alan Dundes 

consistent. If theJoss-of tig irid -causes blindness, thenjthe addition of 
liquid can cure blindness. Urine, forexample (cf. the trade name of a~ 
solution to refresh eyes: Murinel), was commonly used to cure the 
effects of the evil eye as well as for eye diseases generally (Gifford 
1958:66). Mother’s milk is as effective a form, of eye medicine as 
liquid from a male source. Numerous reports relate that “a few drops 
of mothePs milk" directly from the breast is also a favorite remedy for 
inflamed eyes” (Gordon 1937:313). “If a few drops of his mother’s 
milk are poured into his eyes, the child will have good eyesight” reads 
a typical Hungarian superstition (Roheim 1952:353). Urine and 
mother’s milk are evidently effective male and female curative fluids. 

Xtie phall us or t he vulva as a liquid- seeking evil eye wouldexplain 
why the evil eye is singular. But it may not be entirely clear jjdaxjL. 
phallus or a vulva should be perceived as liquid-seeking. To under- 
stand this, it is necessary to consider an important folk theory of 
sexuality, namely, that coitu sis. dangerous and debilitating insofar as 
it may result in a loss of liquid. Legman refers to the fantasy tKaC* 
‘ ‘"sBiniaTThtef cou r s e is ‘weakening’ to the man, but not to the woman, 
because he ‘loses’ a fluid, the semen, which she receives” (1975:651)7 
Legman relates this fantasy to the notion of the succubus. Earlier 
Ernest Jones ( 1 95 1 b: 1 20) had suggested that “the simple idea of the 
vital fluid being withdrawn through an exhausting love embrace” was 
related to the vampire belief. Jones also (195 lb: 179) cited the 
fascinating folk belief that the deyil has^-nQ^semen and that “he can 
impregnate, .a woman only-byJmving first obtWed some semen by 
a cting as a Succubus to a man.” The crucial point with respecTto the 
evil eye complex is that it is not farfetched to claim that the eye as^ 
phallus or vulva poses a threat to the victim’s vital fluids. The 
widespread idea that hunters should refrain from sexual intercourse 
just before a hunt (or warriors before a battle or athletes before a 
game) is very likely related to the notion that a man has a finite amount 
of energy and this energy might be siphoned off or drained by the 
female genitals. The empirically observable fact that a man can 
manage only a limited or finite number of erections, hence sexual acts, 
within a given period of time while a woman, at least in theory (and 
fantasy — cf. Legman 1968:356-60 for the “unsatisfiable female”), 
can indulge in an infinite number of sexual acts might account for the 
idea that males have “limited good” with respect to semen. 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 


In like manner, the Arab pr actice of Imsak, the special art of 
dglayjngj- he male orgasm ( Nefzawi 1 963:30), is probably selfishly 
intended to decrease the loss of precious semen rather than altruisti- 
cally increasing the sexual pleasure of females. The idea that “women 
emit a special fluid at orgasm similar to the semen in men,” which 
Legman calls a superstition “once almost universally believed at the 
folk level” ( 1 968:403), would encourage such a practice. If the male 
succeeded in drawing fluid from the female genital while at the same 
time retaining his own fluid, he would presumably suffer no diminu- 
tion in the finite amount of his life force. The fact that most males are 
unable to prevent ejaculation no doubt accounts for the widespread 
fear of female demons who threaten to suck a male victim dry in one 
way or another (cf. Legman 1975:134). 

This battle of the sexes f or precious li quid of life is quite explicit in 
Chines(r”SCXlTal"' thetJfjTTn this "theory, fEe*“T5H^Yin distinction 
includes a male-female component. According to one authority, the 
Chinese believed that “while man’s semen is strictly limited in 
quantity, woman is an inexhaustible receptacle of Yin essence” 
(Weakland 1956:241). Men were supposed to retain their semen 
insofar as possible and to use the sexual act as a means of “absorbing 
the woman’s Yin essence.” According to the folk theory, “this art of! intercourse with a woman consists of restr aining oneself so as 
no! to eiaoil^ihiiSLmaking one’s^semen returnand i stre ngthen on e’s 
^raiiC (Weakland 1956:240). Since men wanted children (especially 
sons), they were “supposed to ejaculate only on those days when the 
woman was most likely to conceive ... On all other days the man was 
to strive to let the woman reach orgasm without himself emitting 
semen. In this way the man would benefit by every coitus because the 
Yin essence of the woman, at its apex during the orgasm, strengthens 
Jlis vital power.. .” T he goal is a bsolutely clear. Manwas to retain his 
vital- essence while drawingJthe ^sseoce, frqm his female sexual 
partner. In Chinese folklore, one finds dangerous, beautiful women 
who delight in draining their male sexual victims dry (Weakland 
1956:241-42). While the evil eye was reported “to be no less 
common amongst the native population of northern China than it was 
and still is in Europe” (Dennys 1876:49), it seems to be largely absent 
from China (cf. Seligmann 1910:1 :43). But even though the evil eye 
complex is not a major element in the Chinese folk belief system, the 



Alan Dundes 

Chinese perception of coitus in terms of gaining or losing sexual fluids 
seems to be paralleled by similar folk theories among Indo-European 
and Semitic peoples. 

In Uttar Pradesh in northern India, it is believed (Mintum and 
Hitchcock 1966:74) that excessive sexual activity may cause minor 
illness and that “sexual intercourse is thought to make men in 
particular weak and susceptible to disease because the , loss of one 
dropof semen is c onsidere d the equivalent of the loss of 40 drops of 
ftlood.” Moreover, “the longevity of several men is attriEuted to 
complete abstinence in their later years.” Clearly the loss of vital 
fluids through ejaculation is believed to diminish a finite supply of life 
energy. An Andalusian expression (collected in Andalusia by my 
colleague Stanley B rand es in 1 976) confirms that the same reasoning 
is traditional in Spain: “ Sicjuieres llegar a viejo, guarda la leche en el 
pellejo.” “If you want to reach old age, keep your semen within your 

Essentially the same folk idea is described in Kinsey’s Sexual 
Behavior in the Human Male. 

“For many centuries, men have wanted to know whether early 
involvement in sexual activity, or high frequency of early 
activity, would reduce one’s capacities in later life. It has been 
suggested that the duration of one’s sexual life is definitely 
limited, and that ultimate high capacity and long-lived per- 
formance depend upon the conservation of one’s sexual powers 
in earlier years. The individual’s ability to function sexually has 
been conceived as a finite quantity which is fairly limited and 
ultimately exhaustible. One can use up those capacities by 
frequent activity in his youth, or preserve his wealth for the 
fulfillment of the later obligations and privileges of marriage” 
(Kinsey, Pomeroy, and Martin 1948:297). 

Kinsey goes on to remark that medical practitioners have sometimes 
claimed that infertility and erectal impotence were the results of the 
wastage of sperm through excessive sexual activity in youth and that 
Boy Scout manuals for decades informed countless youths “that in 
order ‘ to be prepared’ one must conserve one’ s virility by avoiding any 
wastage of vital fluids in boyhood,” which presumably was an attempt 
to appeal to self-interest to curb self- abuse, the common euphemism 
for masturbation. That a Roman’s genital area Js perceived as a 
d angero uamouth posing a threat to the inale genitals is confirmed not 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 

only by the vagina denta ta motif (F547.1.1) but perhaps also by the 

use of the Lhtm labia for the outer and inner folds of skin and mucous 


membrane of the vulva. Labia, of course, means “lips” (cf. La Barre 
1962:89n) and Jbpsudriak up liqui d.,. 

In the content of the evil eye belief complex, I suggest tha t showing 
the phallus or making the(fi c& ges ture ( which symbolically shows a 
phallus m^vag^ aJ^HiTms Uie prospective victim’s ability to produce 
semen. The ability to produce a liquid is explicit in a curious detail in 
Lebanese-American custom. An exorcist who specialized in combat- 
ting the effects of the evil eye maintained that a child was not cured 
until he had urinated. She insisted that “no one should kiss a child 
while he is being read over and not until he has urinated after the eye 
has been expelled.” Asked why this was necessary, she replied, “It’s 
just natural. That’s the way it is supposed to be” (Naff 1965:50). 
F rom the present perspective, the child’ s cure from the ill effects of the 
evil eye is demonstrated by his ability to make water, to produce liquid 
normally. (This would also be consonant with the fact that urine is 
sometimes reported to be an effective agent in curing the effects 
caused by the evil eye [cf. Pitre 1889:245; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 
and Lenowitz 1973:73].) It is, in sum, entirely consonant with the 
wet-dry hypothesis. 

There is yet another way of blinding the evil eye and that is by 
jtefeCating hpo n it. An unusual marble bas-relief reported by Millin- 
gen in hispapeTdelivered in 1 8 1 8 shows a man lifting his clothing to 
allow his bare buttocks to sit upon a large eye, which is also being 
attacked by a host of animals (cf. Elworthy 1958:138-41; Deonna 
1955:93-94; 1965:180). This belongs to the same tradition as the 
painting unearthed at Pompeii next to a latrine, in which a man squats 
in a defecating position between two upright serpents next to a woman 
whose feet are pierced by a sword. Above the squatting man is 
inscribed Cacator ca ve malum (Magaldi 1931:97; cf. Deonna 
1955:94). Seligmann (1910:1:302-3) notes that excrement is some- 
times used to counteract the effects of the evil eye, e. g., in the case of a 
cow whose milk has gone dry, but he does not attempt to explain why 
excrement should be so used. Roheim (1955:28-31) suggests that 
“the magical value of excrement is based on the infantile anal birth 
theory” in which very young children equate the act of defecation with 
the act of giving birth. Thus, according to Roheim, “The defecating 
child is the mother; the excrement, the child.” Roheim remarks that 



Alan Dundes 

in Scotland, a calf can be protected against the evil eye if some of its 
mother’ s dung is put into its mouth ( 1955:25); and he interprets this as 
meaningthe witch cannot“eat” the child with her evil eye because the 
child is eating the witch (bad mother, excrement). Says Roheim, “To 
possess the evil eye means to have oral aggression or a desire to eat the 
child” (1955:7). If the production of feces is equivalent to giving birth 
to a child, then defecation could be construed as an alternate means of 
proving one’s fertility. But like spitting, the act of defecation can also 
have an insulting aspect. Defecating on the evil eye could also be a 
means of repudiating and defiling it. If the eye were that of an all- 
powerful and ever- watchful parent or all-seeing god, then a child (or 
an adult considering himself a child vis-a-vis his parents or a deity) 
might take pleasure in depositing feces in or on that eye (cf. Jones 
1 95 1 b: 1 76). 

Deonna (1965:183) reminds us of a formula employed in Asia 
Minor by a mother attempting to keep the evil eye away from her 
child. The mother addresses the possible possessor of the evil eye as 
follows: “Q ue ton oeil soit derriere de mon enfant.” Deonna 
wonders if wishing that the eye be positioned at the'chitd’s rear might 
be related to the curious custom of painting an eye at the bottom of 
cbanibeiLqjpts sold at fairs. Such“cHamber"pbts are repoffecf in 
England, Scotland, and France, among other places, where they are 
commonly used in wedding customs (Monger 1975). In Stockport, 
Cheshire, a premarriage ceremony includes the groom’s friends 
presenting him with a chamber pot. It is decorated with the names of 
the bride and groom and a large eye is painted on the bottom of it with 
the words “I can see yo u” (Monger 1 975:52). Later the man and his 
friends take the pot to a tavern and everyone drinks from it. In 
Scotland, a chamber pot filled with salt was given as a wedding 
present to the groom. Miniature chamber pots were sold at the 
Aberdeen market in the mid 1930s “usually inscribed with the words 
‘For me and my girl’ or with an eye at the bottom” (Monger 1 975:56— 

Van Gennep (1932:1:161-162) reported French versions of the 
custom, including one called Saucee (which one is tempted to 
translate as “soused” or “wet through”), from Revel-Tourdan in the 
Dauphine district, in which melted c h ocola te was poured into a 
ch amb erpot with an eye design at the bottom in such a way as to leave 
the eye clear. After the chocolate hardened, other ingredients were 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 

added, such as white wine or champagne, grated chocolate, balls of 
chocolate, creams, etc. The concoction was taken later to the nuptial 
chamber after the bride and groom were considered to be asleep. The 
bride had to drink first, then the groom. Monger ( 1 975:58) suggests a 
possible though admittedly highly speculative, connection to a 
supposed ancient eye-goddess cult in the Middle East (Crawford). 
However, it is more likely that it and the Scottish custom mentioned 
above are vestigial fertility rituals. Salt, 3 s Ernest Jones convincingly 
demonstrated, is a symbolic substitute for semen (1951a:22-109), 
and thus a chafer pbf fffTecT ^ wiTh sairfsT a” container full of semen 
given to the groom. Newlyweds are especially concerned with 
performing the sexual act satisfactorily. Tourney and Plazak observe 
that “the nuptial pair may fear impotence, frigidity and sterility” and 
that apotropaic charms are used to demonstrate that the threatened 
genitalia are safe (1954:491-92). If the eye at the bottom of the 
chamber pot represents the parental or peer group’s attempt to 
observe the first connubial act of intercourse (cf. the words “I can see 
you”) then the act of pouring in chocolate (a sweet, sublimated 
substitute for feces) might be analogous to defecating upon the evil 

If the evil eye represents the threat of impotence and/or the lack or 
loss of the necessary sexual fluids, then it wo uld make sens e todrink 
from an evil eve container. The chamber pot, an obvious receptacle 
for the passing of liquid, is converted through ritual reversal into a 
drinking go blet allowing for tHelricorporation of a potent liquid. (The 
ritual may ali^sfgnaT that a -part of the body hitherto associated 
primarily with excretion will be employed in a new and different way.) 

In the context of defecating upon the evil eye, it might be worth 
conjecturing that the common drinking toast “Here’s mud in your 
eye” may stem from the same psychological source. The person who 
drinks is incorporating the liquid of life. The liquid is taken at someone 
else’s expense. This other person, rather than taking in vital fluid, 
receives the end product of digestive incorporation in his eye. 
Certainly the above-mentioned wish “May your eye be at the 
posterior of my child” is not all that different from “Here’s mud in 
your eye.” 

In terms of the possible symbolism of body parts, it is conceivable 
that t he anus could constitute a m 1 eye. This is suggested by C "1 ,, 
a numbeTof ^standardjoke texts. One traced by Legman back to the 



Alan Dundes 

late eighteenth century tells of a man who puts his artificial glass eye 
in a glass of water before retiring and swallows it by mistake. He visits 
a proctologist who after examining him exclaims, “Fve been looking 
up these things for thirty years, but this i s the fi rs t time anyone ever 
looked back at m e!’ ’ (Legman 1975:515). Another involves a drunk 
who attempts to convince a bartender that he is sober: “Drunk? Hell, 
I’m not drunk. I can see. Look at that cat coming in the door there. It’s 
got only one eye, hasn’t it?” The bartender replies that the cat has two 
eyes, and besides, it is not coming in but going out (Legman 
1975:822). In both Ita lian and Spanish, there are metaphorical 
reference s to th e anus as an eye. From Liguria in Italy, we have the 
following example. A'^Sung prl refused to drink her coffee because 
she noticed coffee grounds in it. Her mother asked, “Ti ae puia che o 
te o l’euggio de cu?” which might be rendered ‘ ‘Are-yoALafraid thaUL 
wili-^tep'uprthe ey.e of your ass?” i.e., cause constipation. Similarly, 
ojo means culo in AndaiusTar lff this connection one recalls Chaucer’s 
reference at the end of his celebrated Miller’s Tale to duped Absolon 
kissing Alison’s “naked ers” with the words “And Absolon hath 
kissed hir nether ye.” The nether eye was thus known in the fourteenth 
century. ' ~ "" 

To the extent that the evil eye has an anal cast, it would be 
perfectly reasonable to confront a threatening.aiuis--witlian,al power. 
In this light, anlln'usuarSpanish ritual and charm against the evil eye 
might be cited (Diego Cuscoy 1 969:502). According to this account, 
since individuals who give the evil eye are generally known as such, 
one turns a child’s back or an animal’s butt towards them when they 
are seen approaching. Then one thinks mentally or recites in a low 
voice the following text: 

Tres garbanzitos 
tiene en el culo: 
quitale dos, 
dejale uno. 

Virate p’al monte 
virate p’al mar, 
virate el culo 
y dejalo andar. 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 

Three little chick peas 
He has in the ass; 

Away with two 
Leave one. 

Turn towards the mountain 
Turn towards the sea 
Turn your ass 
And let it go. 

This would seem to be consistent with the Cacator cave malum 
pattern noted earlier. 

Most folklorists eschew symbolic analysis, and they may there- 
fore be skeptical of the analysis of the evil eye proposed in this essay. 
But even leaving aside the symbolic considerations, one cannot avoid 
the obvious psychological aspects of the evil eye. Sometimes the 
possessor of an evil eye used the power for both psychological and 
mercenary advantage. In Scotland, fear of the evil eye led people to 
bribe or buy off the potential evil eye inflictor (Maclagan 1902:30- 
31, 47). One informant reported thaTMrspMacE. “was believed to 
have the Evil Eye very strongly, and people would do almost anything 
rather than offend her, so general was the impression that she could 
injure any person if she wished to do so” (Maclagan 1 902:69). There 
are similar accounts from Italy. “I know also a_jnosl4.isagreeable 
^inair^hose daily task of running errands is made profltablenby 
propitiatory tips, lest she blight her patrons, their children, or their 
cattle” (Mather 1910:42). In America (Gordon 1937:219), “one 
case in Philadelphia came up before a magistrate recently in which a 
dark-haired little old Italian woman was terrorizing the neighborhood. 
For many years she had extracted large sums of money from those 
who came under the influence of the evil eye. She also sold charms 
made out of bones of the dead, articles of ivory, stones, and herbs, 
wrapped in rag bags.” These are surely examples of transforming 
what might be a liability into a kind of asset. 

Occasionally, there have been attempts to put the power of the evil 
eye to good use. One of the most unusual of these attempts took place 
in Sassari in Sardinia near the end of the last century. According to the 
report (Edwardes 1 889:326-27), the evil eye was enlisted to battle a 
plague of locusts: “Not long ago, Sassari elected a mayor who openly 


scoffed at the priests. This gentleman was not, however, a thorough 
type of the modem Sassarese. For though he condemned religion, he 
was sufficiently in the thrall of superstition to give his earnest sanction 
to the employment of a youth gifted with t he evil eye. The country 
happened to be p i agued^wit fri ocusT CTHere was no remedy except the 
evil eye. And so t he lad was pe r ambulate d about the di strict, and 
bidden to look his fiercest at the insufferable ravagers of vineyards, 
gardens, and the rich orchards of the north. Even when the locusts 
remained unmoved by this infliction, the mayor’s faith in the remedy 
was unchanged. They had requisitioned an ‘evil eye’ of comparative 
impotency, that was all. It behooved them, therefore, to find a person 
better gifted than the lad they had used.” 

Evidently, humans are more likely to be intimidated by the evil 
eye than locusts are. In 1 95 7, a committee of the U. S. Senate charged 
with investigating possible connections between organized crime and 
labor interviewed an Italian racketeer from New York City. The 
committee was told that the evil eye had been used to keep unhappy 
employees on the job. According to Gifford’s account (1958:103), 
the racketeer was hired by one employer simply to come in once or 
twice every week or so to glare at the employees. The employer found 
that it was enough to have this individual come in and look at the 
workers to keep them at their work. 

Most of the time, however, the possessor of the evil eye is shunned 
and ignored. In Morocco, “A person who is reputed to have an evil 
eye ... is not allowed to take part in feasts or gatherings ... he must 
not pitch his tent near the tents of others” (Westermarck 1 926:426). 
Like accusations of witchcraft, accusations of possessing the evil eye 
give social sanction to ostracizing an individual, often transforming 
him into a pariah. Pitre (1889:247) is one of the relatively few 
scholars to express sympathy for the poor soul who may be 
unfortunate enough to be victimized by an accusation of possessing 
the evil eye: “Th sjettatore has no name, no friends, nor the possibility 
of a social life . . .” 

The evil eye, like so many forms of human custom and super- 
stition, is condemned automatically by so-called educated members 
of Western elite societies. But it should be realized that the evil eye, 
like most customs, serves^n invaluah le-proiec tive function. When an 
infant becomes ill or dies, there is potentially a great deal of guilt and 
shame felt by parents. The evil eye belief complex provides a nearly 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 



foolproof mechanism that allows the anxious parents to shift the 
responsibility and blame for the misfortune upon someone else, 
perhaps even a total stranger whose eyes are a different color from the 
parents’. Similarly, if a cow’s milk dries up or a favorite fruit tree 
withers, it is not the fpdl oi^ the tree: the evil 

eye caused these calamities. 

Even the diagnostic and protective techniques involved in the evil 
eye belief complex may provide important psychological supports. A 
small child who feels ill is assured of a great deal of parental attention. 
In Italian and Italian-Amerlcan tradition, abowl or shallow dish filled 
with water and a drop of olive oil may be placed on his head to 
determine whether or not his discomfort has been caused by-the-evii 
gye. Whether the child or parents believe in the efficacy of the 
procedure or not, most children surely enjoy being the cynosure of all 
eyes. Thus whatever evil results from the evil eye, there is also a 
beneficial aspect of the belief complex. 

The concern in this essay has been not so much with the evil eye 
per se, but with the attempt to understand the folk ideas or worldview 
principles underlying it. The delineation of the wet-dry opposition and 
the idea o f limited good is, however, not jusTanTdle intellectual 
exercise. There are applications to be made that may lead to a better 
understanding of cultural differences. For example, in the United 
States, the idea of limited good is not as common as in the Old World. 
Instead, it has been argued that an idea of unlimited good prevails 
(Dundes 1971). In theory (as opposed to practice), there is enough 
“good” for everyone to have his fair share. One could also argue that 
the collective guilt felt by citizens of the United States for their 
relatively high standard of living accounts for their attempts to “tip” 
less fortunate countries by offering them substantial foreign aid. Just 
as many wealthy individuals turn to philanthropy as a means of 
salving their consciences (for enjoying the possession of more goods 
than they need for simple survival) so the have-nations feel impelled 
to help the have-nots by offering grain surpluses and other aid. 

But there are some substantive differences. In American culture, 
praiseris4iQt only permitted but expected. One can pralse ffiebe auty of 
an infant or a friend’ sTnew house or dress without giving offense or 
causing anxiety. But Americans need to remember when they travel in 
other parts of the Indo-European and Semitic world that praise can be 
considered threatening. When a new acquaintance literally gives a 



Alan Dundes 

visiting American the shirt off his back (which the American may 
have admired), it is not necessarily because of friendship so much as 
because of fear of the evil eye. By the same token, Americans, who 
from infancy are accustomed to hearing and receiving lavish praise for 
even the slightest deed, should not be offended when praise is not 
forthcoming from colleagues from cultures in which belief in the evil 
eye remains a vital force. One American woman married to an eastern 
European told me she had never understood why her in-laws so rarely 
praised her or her children. She took it personally, not realizing that 
their unwillingness to indulge in the public praising so common among 
Americans might have been due to the cultural imperatives demanded 
by the evil eye complex. To praise is to invite disaster in evil eye 

The contrast bety ^eertAmerican conve nti o ns of socialization and 
t hose o f evil eye cultures is quite pronounced. American chirdrerrare 
typically asked to perform and show off in front of family and friends 
(and sometimes even strangers). Not so in evil eye cultures. The case 
of the Syrian and Lebanese Americans is instructive. “Experience 
taught that to show off a ‘smart’ child in front of people, especially 
strangers, is to invite the eye to strike him” (Naff 1965:49). The same 
is reported for northern India: “Because of the belief in the evil eye, a 
visitor who followed the American custom of admiring the baby, 
praising its unusual healthiness, good looks, or well-kept appearance 
would cause panic rather than pride, and a village mother would no 
more show off her baby to the admiration of a visitor than an 
American mother would deliberately expose an infant to a contagious 
disease” (Mintum and Hitchcock 1966:111-12). 

F or most of the Indo-European and Semitic world, the philosophy 
articulated by Herodotus and Horace prevails with respect to fame 
and fortune and the praise thereof. Herodotus in Book VII, chapter 
10, of the Persian Wars speaks of lightning striking the tallest trees. 
“ See how god with his lightning always smites the bigger animals, and 
will not suffer them to wax insolent, while those of a lesser bulk chafe 
him not. How likewise his bolts fall ever on the highest houses and the 
tallest trees. So plainly does he love to bring down everything that 
exalts itself.” Horace says, “It is the mountaintop that the lightning 
strikes” ( Odes 2.10). A low profile is essential to avoid the envy of 
one’s peers or the gods. Certainly one element of the evil eye complex 
is the “fear of success” (Haimowitz and Haimowitz 1966). This is 

Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye 

analogous to the underdog theme in American culture — politicians 
and athletic teams prefer to be the underdog because they ardently 
believe that front runners and the favored are likely to be overtaken 
and defeated. In the same ode Horace says, “Whoever cultivates the 
golden mean avoids both the poverty of a hovel and the envy of a 
palace.” This is an ideal — to be neither envied nor envier. 

One needs enough liquid to live but that means not too little and 
not too much. But eventually the finite amount is depleted. “For dust 
thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” If drying is dying, then 
death i§ dusLThe American slang idiom “to bite the dust” reflects not 
only the convulsive act of a dying man whose mouth may touch the 
earth, but also the same wet-dry continuum that I have suggested 
underlies the whole evil eye belief complex. 

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, ideas of the after life include a 
solution to the problem of the imagmedJthiisLQ^ For heaven 
or paradise or the promised land is one which flows with milk and 
honey (Genesis 3:6, Exodus 33:3, Jeremiah 11:5, etc.). The phrase 
“and the hills shall flow with milk” (Joel 3:18) strongly suggests that 
there may be an infantile prototype for this metaphor, namely, the 
initial postnatal breast-feeding constellation. In the idealized afterlife, 
one is finally safe from the evil eye. Here there is plenty of milk and 
honey — enough for an eternity of replenishment. With unlimited 
liquid, one is free to enjoy life eternal. On the other hand, in hell, we 
have excessive heat — fire and water are presumably in opposition. 
And one thinks of the plight of the unfortunate Tantalus, perpetually 
consumed by thirst he is unable to slake because the waters cruelly 
recede whenever he bends down to drink. 

In conclusion, it seems reasonable to argue that the wet-dry 
op posi tion is just as important as t he h ot-cold opposition, wKich has 
been frequenlly^sfudledby anthropologists andstudentsof the history 
of medicine. Perhaps it is even more important. Classical humoral 
pathology in fact included all four distinctions: heat, dryness, 
moistness, and cold (cf. Story 1860:697, Lloyd 1964). In this 
connection, it is noteworthy that a reported native classification of 
foods in northern India included hot, cold, dry, and wet (Mintum and 
Hitchcock 1 966:73). If the wet-dry distinction does underlie the evil 
eye belief, then the distribution and age of the complex would tend to 
suggest that the wet-dry opposition is much older than its articulation 
among the ancient Greeks concerned with humoral pathology. 



Alan Dundes i 

Rather, it would appear that the formulations of humoral pathology 
simply formalized a folk theory already in existence. One must keep in 
mind that all of the so-called humors were fluids, and for that matter, 
the term humor itself comes from the Latin umor, meaning “fluid” or 
“moisture.” It is even possible that the idea of an exceptionally dry 
sense of humor might imply that the normal state of humor was wet! 

Foster (1978) has assumed that the wet-dry distinction has 
disappeared in Latin America. He asks, “But why have the moist/dry 
qualities disappeared— apparently everywhere— in contemporary 
systems?” Foster answers his own question by suggesting that the 
moist-dry component so basic to classical humor pathology is less 
critical than the hot-cold distinction. “Heat and cold, and not 
moistness or dryness, are the primary causes of illness,” argues 
Foster, who is, of course, speaking only of conscious articulation of 
theories of illness causation. If the wet-dry opposition is related to the 
evil eye belief complex (not to mention beliefs about the dead), one 
might take issue with the idea that the wet-dry distinction has 
disappeared and also with the idea that it is less critical than the hot- 
cold dichotomy with respect to folk theories of disease. On the 
contrary, I believe there is ample evidence to support the notion that 
the opposition between wet and dry is a fundamental folk idea, albeit 
an unconscious one, in Indo-European and Semitic worldview, a folk 
idea which is, metaphorically at any rate, a matter of life and death. 
With respect to the ideal of moderation, I can only hope in closing that 
my argument holds water but that my ideas are not all wet. God forbid 
that anyone who disagrees with me should give me a withering look, or 
tell me to go dry up and blow away. 


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